Every year back at Antenna we used to do reviews of the fall TV pilots. Antenna’s gone, but TV still seems to exist, so we’re getting a small piece of the band back together and keeping the tradition alive.
Note: These aren’t thumbs up/thumbs down reviews but more the immediate impression the show gave to a professional television scholar.
Interested in participating? email matt dot sienkiewicz at bc dot edu
Kyra Hunting, University of Kentucky
A girl on a keyboard with a skirt around her waist, a damsel in distress, an arrogant blond 20-something displaying his supposed “genius” with relatively unimpressive feats, and a reference to a shallow “mysterious” past where two colleagues “don’t talk about cairo” – all before the credit sequence. MacGyver isn’t just unoriginal, it is hopelessly retro, channeling the 80s (without actually being period) in ways that feel too gauche for the 80s itself. To call it regressive would be an understatement. Its female characters are all paper thin, sexualized, and defined in large part by their romantic relationships to the male characters. Its first episode’s tension – in which MacGyver’s girlfriend appeared to have died during a job that he must finish lest a plague by unleashed only to discover his girlfriend might not be dead – is completely undermined by the show’s total inability to establish any kind of real loving connection between the two at the outset. His partner Jack Dalton, played by George Eads, has hardly any distinguishing characteristics and seems to rely entirely on channeling Eads character from CSI, which still makes him deeper then the rest of the cast. The “replacement hot girl hacker”(See they’re not sexist girls get to use computers!) literally is only free from jail at MacGyver and Dalton’s pleasure. The only character with anything approaching interesting characteristics is MacGyver’s best friend Wilt Bozer, played ably by Justin Hires, but he only appears in short bursts and is pretty transparently (and problematically) CBS’ attempt at bundling ‘diversity’ and comic relief into one, underutilized, package.
Much of this could be forgiven if MacGyver himself was a deeply engaging or likable character, but he isn’t. Angus MacGyver, played by Lucas Till, reads as hopelessly arrogant. While cocky can be a likable characteristic in television anti-heroes, actually one I’m quite fond of, MacGyver is no anti-hero and he has neither the cleverness, sharp tongue or dark streak to make his arrogance anything but obnoxious. One could argue that it is supposed to be earned by MacGyver’s scientific genius but his first few tricks all seemed as if they could have come right out of my 8 year old niece’s fun with science kits. Oooo powder and tape to capture a finger print! He must be a genius! More complex “macgyvering” and science is rolled out later but at that point the potential to “wow me” with his scientific cleverness had long gone. Without any real display of wit or genius MacGyver’s lack of character depth and entitled attitude is almost intolerable. This cannot all be laid at the feet of the actor, since he wasn’t gifted with a single memorable line in the entire script. Indeed, at times the script felt as if it had been randomly generated by a computer who pulled lines from successful tv shows and action films and recombined them without any thought to tension or character development. CBS can at times be known for “least objectionable” television programming, comfort food tv, things you can just put on in the background and enjoy. That is not MacGyver, it is not comfort food, and it is certainly not unobjectionable. It is the worst of us; shallow, sexist, and built around a golden-haired golden boy with little really impressive skill and scant emotional depth who shows a few so-so tricks and boundless self-confidence and so is lauded, while ignoring the contributions of others. So far this season of CBS has felt like the “great backlash” with shows like Kevin Can Wait (isn’t it adorable how childish he is) and Bull (sure you can violate everyone’s privacy because you have such smart glasses) but of all of them MacGyver is the worst. You are better off watching CSI run-ons…you are better off watching paint dry.
Kyra Hunting, University of Kentucky
I don’t watch sports, I’ve just never managed to get invested enough in a player or team to get engaged, but if Ginny Baker, the protagonist of Pitch, was a real baseball player I might just go out and buy some season tickets. The series sets it stakes early using faux news coverage, flashbacks and crowds of rosy cheeked little girls holding signs proclaiming their enthusiasm and hopes of following in her footsteps to baseball stardom. Ginny Baker is the first female player ever to play in Major League Baseball – a spotlight made brighter by her prominent role of pitcher. Pitch has the potential to capture a viewer right off the bat, I was emotionally invested in the first fifteen minutes – finding myself defensive of the subtle sexism Ginny encounters and worried about the heavy weight being placed on her shoulders. What is tricky for Pitch is how effective the emotional journey of the first episode is, and this is the core of the pilot, depends – in part – on how engaged you are in these stakes from the jump.
For many viewers, certainly myself, the idea of the first female major league player may be deeply meaningful, even if you aren’t a baseball fan. Small gestures embedded in the script take on deeper meaning when the show is being watched through the lens of Ginny’s struggles in the majors as standing in for any number of struggles women face entering male dominated professions and spaces. The series seems well aware of this potential and spends a good deal of the first episode depicting not only Ginny’s own experiences but how Ginny is made to mean by others, by the teammates who see her as a gimmick or joke, the team owners who see her as a valuable commodity, and the little girls who see in Ginny their own hopes for the future. It is to the show’s great credit that they embrace the complexity of gender politics in an instance of “firsts”. Instead of going for easy inspiration, it explores how the pressure that can be put on Ginny is crippling and acknowledges that change, and even help, does not always happen because of good intentions but that sometimes selfish desires, in this case of the owners and her captain, are integral in progressive change.
The series could be criticized for leaning heavily on tropes well worn in the genre of inspirational sports films, and this criticism is largely valid. The surprise talent of an unlikely child, the parent’s dreams that must be fulfilled, the failure and following redemption….none of these are surprising narrative elements. But I am inclined to excuse the use of a well known framework for the narrative because Pitch achieved something that I think is very rare for a pilot – it created an emotionally complicated main character. Kylie Bunbury, as Ginny, plays her as alternately cocky, calm, angry, girlish, strong and fragile. Our first moments with adult Ginny depict her as unappealing, cocky and self-centered, but the series quickly reveals the extent to which this persona is deployed in certain situations to cover up her anxiety or to attempt to stand up to teammates her treat her as a sex object. Pitch’s first episode not only gives us a deeply multi-faceted character but an understanding of why that character is the way she is, and how that is context specific. For me, this makes me think Pitch could be one of the smarter dramas on network television, subtle, character driven, with the potential to demonstrate a great deal of depth once it no longer has to set up the terms of its story. The story is helped along by an able supporting cast including Bob Balaban, Dan Lauria, Mark Consuelos and Ali Larter each of whom effectively establish distinct supporting characters quickly.
Pitch is certainly not perfect. It has a tendency to overreach, as it did in its “surprise twist” ending in the first episode and I worry that it may fall into the temptation to slide into scandal and surprise as stock and trade. It shouldn’t. Its quiet moments, its character development and its central question – what does it mean for a women to be a first, not only to her but to those around her – are more than enough to hook me for a season and more.
Brian Faucette, Caldwell Community College
The struggles of rookie phenom Ginny Baker, who is not only the first woman to play baseball but also an African American, is the focus of Fox’s new high-concept series Pitch that is designed to appeal to sports fans and increase its attempts to reach a diverse audience. Kylie Bunbury, a Canadian actress who was last seen in the CBS series Under the Dome (2013-15) plays Ginny. Bunbury is convincing as the young pitcher who is first shown with sleep tousled hair in her hotel room. In her room Ginny sees a bowl of fruit sent to her by Hilary Clinton, a clear nod that Fox and MLB want the viewer to identify the series with the idea that Ginny like Hilary can be responsible for “breaking another glass ceiling.” Appearing two years after Mo’ne Davis stunned the world with her performance at the Little League World Series the show and MLB seem ready to embrace the idea that baseball could and perhaps should have female players in the league. Historically there have been women who played baseball as Penny Marshall poignantly captured with the 1992 comedy A League of Their Own about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that was formed during WW II. However, it was not only white women who played baseball. Toni Stone, Mamie “Peanuts” Johnson, and Connie Morgan all played professional baseball in the Negro Leagues and Toni Stone had the honor of replacing Henry Aaron when he moved up to the majors. Thus, it is in this lineage, which the fictional Ginny Baker can be placed and it is clear that issues such as legacy and history are foundational to the formation of this story and of course has been the backbone for MLB baseball and its fans. Pitch addresses the historical aspects of Ginny’s achievements and at the same time connects her to important legacies within the sport.
Ginny arrives at Petco Park, after leaving the hotel with her entourage made up of her feisty agent Amelia Slater (Ali Larter) and Elliot (Tim Jo) a social media consultant. Outside the stadium she is greeted with thousands of cheering fans, especially little girls who hold up signs and ask for autographs. Inside the ballpark Ginny learns that the dressing room set up for her by the club is an old storage closet, but she accepts it. As she looks at her jersey, Ginny is overwhelmed as the club owner Frank Reid, played by Bob Balaban, explains to her that he gave her the number 43 because “it is one number up from Jackie,” a reference to the fact that Jackie Robinson, the first man to break MLB”s color barrier, wore the number 42, which has since been retired for use by MLB. The sense of history and her own worries are again illustrated when she first takes the mound and in a moment that creates verisimilitude viewers see Fox sports announcers Joe Buck and John Smoltz discuss her prospects and argue that she might be little more than a late season call-up or more like a circus act designed to garner media attention and extra tickets. The use of Fox sports’ personalities and media practices such as its crawl during baseball games is an effective tool and also serves to highlight Fox sports and most importantly Major League Baseball, who is a key player for the series development. Major League Baseball and the San Diego Padres the team, which Ginny plays for in this fictional narrative have given showrunner Dan Fogelman and Fox unrestricted access to MLB parks and marketing for the show.
In her first outing Ginny struggles to get even one strike and the announcers question whether she has what it takes to even make it in the majors. It is the same sentiment expressed by several of her teammates including Mike Lawson, the team’s star catcher, played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar best known for his work on the NBC kids’ series Saved by the Bell. Lawson decides to help the rookie out when she again struggles in her second start and gives her a very cliché pep talk on the mound telling her to pitch for herself and not the fans. The scene is reminiscent of other baseball films like Bull Durham (1988), Major League (1989) and For Love of the Game (1999). As Ginny listens to Lawson, a player whose rookie card she collected she finds the will and desire to beat back her demons and just pitch. As a result she not only gains the respect of her team, her crusty manager Al Luongo (Dan Lauria), and the announcers, especially when in a tough count she breaks with convention and throws the hitter another screwball, her best pitch, and records the out. In her moment of triumph, there is also a sense of tragedy and pain as Fogelman reveals the big twist—one that shares echoes with Field of Dreams (1987), the quintessential baseball film. Ginny longs to celebrate her first victory as a major league pitcher with her father only to remember that he is dead.
Bill Baker, played by Michael Beach is a bit cliché at times as the no-nonsense dad who in the beginning just wants to play catch with his son. However, he discovers that it is really his daughter who has the love for the game and the ability. Thus Bill, a retired minor league ballplayer makes it his mission to ensure that Ginny is a greater ball player than he was. He gets her a tryout with a little league baseball team where her skill with the ball impresses the male coaches who question whether a girl can even play. Bill then tells Ginny about the screwball pitch and tells her she has to practice the pitch using nectarines until she masters it. Bill’s desire to have Ginny be the perfect MLB prospect are shown to be cruel when he punches his son in the face to make her throw her pitches where he wants them when they are practicing her delivery. With each success including the win of a state championship, Ginny enthusiastically says to her dad, “We did it Pops.” Bill stoically replies, “We ain’t done nothing yet.” Bill’s reactions seem cold at first but when considered in light of the reality that the odds of getting to the major leagues and having a real career are astronomical, his statements are realistic.
The issues of gender and race are clearly going to be at the forefront of the series, and already some critics have taken issue with the fact that the series’ seems to be sexualizing Ginny’s character as there are several references made to her “big ole bubble butt.” These moments are indeed cringe worthy and I hope will be toned down going forward as the series settles into its routine. Indeed, while the series’ is far from perfect and there is work to go in terms of its depiction of Ginny’s support system—her mother is little more than a cheering face in the crowd—and Evelyn Sanders (Meagan Holder), wife of African American teammate Blip Sanders (Mo McRae) is depicted as the typical player’s wife when she tries to cheer Ginny up with the distraction of alcohol and explains that she has very little to do in life except support her husband. Still, even with these problems as a fan of baseball and self-identified feminist man I am willing to step into the batter’s box and give Pitch several innings before I call the game because I feel like the show promises greater things to come as Ginny struggles to fit into the game and satisfy herself and the hopes and dreams of her dad.
Nora Patterson, University of Iowa
Bull. It’s like watching Scandal, but finally, the legal system show formula featuring a “cynical outsider who doesn’t play by the rules, is confident in their ability to ‘fix’ things, and speaks in quick witty dialogue” has a white man as the leading character. Yes, that’s right, if you found the first, more-procedural-like season of Scandal enjoyable but were irked by the same-old, boring strong African American female-lead cliché, CBS has come to your rescue with the ground-breaking use of a confident, self-satisfied white man central character. Bullshit! Michael Weatherly brings the charming smirk he fully honed on NCIS to the character of Jason Bull, jury psychiatrist. And Bull has a team of people working for him that almost match Olivia Pope’s gladiators archetype by archetype. And there are a few other cool twists! Bull is a psychiatrist who specializes in jury predictions, and when he sits in court, magical realism ensues as the jurors turn to him and share their inner thoughts, its sooo hilarious and lets us see how good Bull is at reading the jurors. Bullshit! Snappy high-tech visual elements and the overlay of clips and snippets of new media. Man oh man, this show is definitely in tune with the young’uns and all their damn fangled doodads. Bull opens with a split screen of manufactured “man-on-the-street” first person videos talking about how the legal systems is broken, racist and biased to the rich, creating a sense of realism and zeitgeist by very subtly referencing the Black Lives Matter movement but never actually engaging with contemporary social justice issues. Bullshit! Yes folks, CBS found a legal drama to replace The Good Wife, another one of those all-too-common dramas featuring a complex female character at its center. Bullshit! This show has strong ratings, and will most likely be picked up for a full season if it has not been already. If you want to snicker every time you hear someone refer to the ridiculously contrived name Bull, you should watch this show. Otherwise, in the era of peak TV, this is really the shit you watch to have something familiar, comforting and wholly unoriginal on in the background as you grade, do the dishes or, you know, mow the lawn.
Andrew Owens, Boston College
Televisual adaptation is tricky business…and there’s a lot of it floating around this fall’s premiere season. How showrunners, producers, directors, and casts reimagine preexisting source material can range from intelligent to idiotic and everything in between. And perhaps one of the biggest decisions to be made in such scenarios is where to fall in the subtle yet significant dichotomy between “based upon” and “inspired by.” Thankfully, FOX’s The Exorcist goes for the latter, drawing from both William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel and William Friedkin’s 1973 film adaptation to competently reimagine the story of a family menaced by supernatural forces for the small screen.
In both Blatty’s novel and Friedkin’s film, how one manages crises of faith takes thematic center stage. And that is precisely where we meet Father Tomas Ortega (Alfonso Herrera), a Chicagoland priest whose church and personal relationship with God are both in need of a serious facelift. As parishioners at Father Tomas’ church, the Rance family (headed by overworked matriarch Angela [Geena Davis]), is in the midst of their own downward spiritual struggles after Henry Rance (Alan Ruck) suffers an unnamed medical tragedy (probably a stroke) and daughter Katherine (Brianne Howey) arrives back from college a changed, introverted young woman. And while Katherine’s moody behavior doesn’t seem cause for alarm itself, Angela confesses her conviction to Father Tomas that it’s actually the latest manifestation of inexplicable phenomena caused by what she believes to a demon inside the Rance house. Enter here Father Marcus Keane (Ben Daniels), a dishonored former exorcist whose failed attempts to save a young boy in South America from demonic possession continue to haunt both his life and Father Tomas’ dreams. After visiting Father Marcus in the Catholic clergy equivalent of an old folks’ home, Father Tomas begins to believe that perhaps Angela’s paranoid ravings aren’t as ill-founded as they seem.
For me, part of what makes both Blatty’s novel and Friedkin’s film so effective is the slow-burn, especially as matriarch Chris MacNeil steadily uncovers a major theme mirrored in this year’s installment of American Horror Story: “It’s amazing how long a person can rationalize the irrational.” But unfortunately, given the contemporary limitations of network serial television, duration of that sort would likely prove more foul than fair for The Exorcist’s chances of survival. Nevertheless, the series premiere presents the foundations of a compelling premise, a mythology flexible enough for the writing staff to hopefully take some risks, and a end-of-episode twist that admittedly got even this seasoned horror viewer. At least for now, the power of The Exorcist will compel me to keep watching.
Kevin Can Wait
Matt Sienkiewicz, Boston College
Available on CBS.com
Kevin Can Wait: A Parable
On the day on which he first began to remember, his father brought him to a boat. It was small and the sea was vast. He did not know to be afraid. The boat launched and the boy looked. He looked and looked, and everything swirled. Off in the distance there were islands everywhere. Though they grew familiar, they were unlike that which the boy called home. They appeared to move across the water, shifting in both place and shape. They came and went, some popping up for a single, sad moment. Others lingered for years, slowly drifting into the mist until they grew too faint to see. Some were beautiful and brought the boy joy. Others were ugly and misshapen, structured so poorly the boy did not understand how they could ever have come to be. He was not sure which ones he missed most. Father continued to steer.
As the boy grew older, he came to worry. He saw that the stars in the sky were not fixed in place. They darted and dashed, came and went. Yesterday’s giant was tomorrow’s dwarf. Sometimes they did not appear at all. Sometimes they blazed so brightly the boy could barely stand to look. How, he wondered, did father know where their boat was if everything seemed to move at once? His father steered, yawning.
And then one day the boy was not a boy. His father prepared to leave. As he did, the young man was compelled to ask. “Father,” he began, “I have come to understand this sea. I have seen hundreds of islands rise and fall, thousands of stars burn and die. I can no longer be surprised and I see why you have grown bored. And, yet,” he continued, “there is one thing that eludes me. How do you know that we have moved at all? Perhaps as the sea and sky swirl around us, we stay in place.”
His father nodded. “Son,” he said, “do you see that star, shaking slightly, glowing dimly, somewhat stouter than the rest?” The young man did. “That one star,” father continued, “does not move, does not change.” The young man nodded.
“And there, below this star, do you see that island?”
“Yes, father I do. It is grotesque and yet, at times, I find myself staring.”
“That island will rise and fall, changing only slightly each time it emerges. It will remain populated by slovenly, simple men and women so beautiful you will wonder how it could be that they choose to remain there. The people of that Island will always be simple, obvious, uninteresting types, steadfastly maintaining their roles, recycling old ways of life. At moments, you will take offense, staring in wonderment at all the things these people do not know. At others, you will, despite yourself, be drawn to it. The light from the star above is somehow comforting, though it is not pretty”
The young man nodded.
“There is little good on that island, son. But you can use it, nonetheless. One day, far off, you will wonder if you have traveled, if you have grown, if you are a better, more complex person than you once were. The sea will have been rocky and you will feel as though you have lost your place. That day, look up at that star and across to the island below it. It will look smaller, simpler, and duller than it does even now. And thus you will see how far you’ve come.”
The young man understood. “Father,” he asked “does this star have a name?”
“Kevin James, my son. And the island, for now, is Kevin Can Wait.”
Nick Marx, Colorado St
Available on Fox.com
Other than drawing its characters and story from the 80s/90s film franchise, there’s little in FOX’s Lethal Weapon that distinguishes it from the many buddy cop action/comedy series that come and go from network television every year. All of your favorite and familiar genre tropes are there, slickly packaged in a way that evokes the original films enough without alienating new viewers. There is maverick hothead Martin Riggs (played with amusing gusto by procedural “that guy” Clayne Crawford), who’s got nothing to lose after losing his pregnant wife. There is strait-laced veteran Roger Murtaugh (played by not the Damon Wayans you’re thinking of, but the one you kinda remember), who’s coming off a major heart operation and looking to ease back into the field. There’s a paint-by-numbers case-of-the-week involving heroin, a bevvy of benevolent minorities, and Los Angeles locales that only exist to stage procedural plot points. And by the pilot’s end we learn that there is, of course, more to the two lead detectives than we’re led to believe initially.
Aside from some aggravatingly sexist character beats (Murtaugh’s wife is twice interrupted while trying to administer convalescence fellatio to him) all of this is fine-ish, sometimes amusing, but mostly forgettable. I don’t know, man. There’s a lot of TV out there, and I don’t blame studios and networks for continuing to teeter on the crest of the “known movie IP to TV” reboot wave. But even for a broadcast show trying to stand out among the fall glut of much broadcast-ier shows, Lethal Weapon has got no edge. The pilot’s director, Internet listicle of early-2000s pop culture ephemera come to life McG, plops a couple of set-pieces in a Fast & Furious-styled flurry of action, but they’re illegible and of little consequence to the plot. FOX will likely give the show a long leash, but it will have to work much harder very quickly to sustain more than a season’s worth of interest among viewers cynical that Lethal Weaponalready got it right the first, second, third, and fourth times.
Legends of Chamberlain Heights
Phil Scepanski, Marist College
Legends of Chamberlain Heights has obvious influences. Most notably, its extremely-low-rent animation style its internet-based forbearers like Homestar Runner and Comedy Central’s gold standard animated series, South Park. According to the obviously press-release inspired Deadline story, it is “an urban animated series mixing raucous comedy and social commentary” which brings to mind aspects The Boondocks. But be warned, this is not The Boondocks nor South Park. The humor and offensiveness of this show is cheap and flat in ways that more closely suggest Comedy Central’s most recent animated failure, Brickleberry.
I will not criticize this show for using well-worn tropes. I’m pretty sure culture still successfully copies jokes that originated in ancient Greek theater. Still, Legends fails to do much of interest with its characters or situations. The overly-happy plastic-surgery-dependent mother will show that her attitude arises from medication and teenage boys will crack inappropriate jokes about their attraction to her – that much is obvious from the moment she appears on-screen. Ho-hum.
Overall, this first episode was pretty terrible. However, it contained two barely chuckle-worthy moments. The easier laugh was from the sound effect that paired the image of a teenager growing hair at an alarming rate. Even if the show reproduces that kind of serendipitous gag, it will grow old quickly. The other moment, which was really a scene but I’m calling it a moment for parallelism, hit its mark both comically and socially. Two police officers show a blatantly racist anti-drug slideshow to students. This bit used its offensiveness to lodge critique and managed to do so in a fairly enjoyable way.* If Legends of Chamberlain Heights is going to become decent, it needs to build on that kind of humor.
*It also contained a cheap AIDS joke that, forgive me, surprised me enough to get a laugh.
American Horror Story: Roanoke
Andrew Owens, Boston College
Available on fx.com
If there’s one thing that Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s F/X juggernaut American Horror Storydoes well, it’s citation. From a cast that seemingly stepped right out of the frames of Tod Browning’sFreaks in AHS: Freak Show to Lady Gaga and Matt Bomer’s reenactment of the opening scenes of Tony Scott’s The Hunger in last year’s AHS: Hotel, the series’ past five seasons have taken us down a haunted hallway of conventions that even the most casual horror viewer would be intimately familiar with. Yet in this year’s iteration, these benchmarks are creatively deployed for the first time in the service of effectively reimagining a true life American nightmare from our nation’s sinister past.
Unlike its progenitors, American Horror Story: Roanoke uses a story-within-a-story structure similar to current pseudodoc series such as American Haunting and Paranormal Witness to tell the story of Shelby Miller (Lily Rabe) and Matt Miller (André Holland), a married couple who, upon encountering both gang violence and a pregnancy miscarriage while living in Los Angeles, venture to North Carolina and purchase an old farmhouse for the too-good-to-be-true price of $40,000. Outside the confessional framing of My Roanoke Nightmare that Shelby and Matt are participating in, their lives are respectively reenacted to paranoid perfection in the diegesis by Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding, Jr.
As Shelby’s voiceover quickly confesses, “from the very first moment, I felt danger there.” And indeed, this premonition quickly materializes in rather spectacular fashion: a hailstorm of human teeth, a gang of costumed vigilantes who attempt to drown Shelby in an outdoor hot tub, and a dead pig left on the Miller’s front porch. As Matt’s job as a pharmaceutical sales rep draws him away from home for long stretches at a time, his sister Lee (the always indomitable Angela Bassett) arrives to look after Shelby. And although the two women have never gotten along, they quickly find themselves fighting for their lives as a mob of torch-wielding locals approaches the house and forces the two women into the basement. After emerging from this attempted attack, Shelby and Lee find what can only be described as a plethora of wooden Blair Witch figurines strung from the staircase and rafters of the house’s atrium. Scared out of her wits and seeing no good future in this dangerous dwelling, Shelby takes the Miller’s car and runs, only to crash into an old woman (Kathy Bates) who leads her into the woods and into the waiting grip of who we can only assume to be the settlers of the lost colony of Roanoke.
Part Paranormal Activity, part Blair Witch Project, and part Amityville Horror, American Horror Story: Roanoke gets back to the series’ roots, with a lusciously gothic mise-en-scène, plenty of paranoid wanderings, and both feet planted firmly in the realm in which the series does its best work: the supernatural. Combined with a true life premise that continues to baffle American historians to this day, watching how Murphy and company imagine what happened to the famed lost colony should make for a compelling ride.
Son of Zorn Fox (9/11)
Available on Fox.com
Jonathan Gray, University of Wisconsin-Madison
There’s one joke in this pilot that’s stuck with me. It’s not a good one, but that’s kind of the point, since it flags the laziness of some of the writing, and the dangers of who will end up being the butt of this show’s jokes. Zorn has expressed doubt at the notion that his ex-wife is happy with her fiancée, and she insists that she is. He’s good to their son, they have a nice life, and, she notes, “we have an avocado tree outside.” Zorn intervenes to ridicule her, and we’re meant to laugh at her too.
But who the heck would ever use an avocado tree as evidence of a good life when defending oneself to a bone-crushing caricature of wildly excessive violent masculinity? Part of the humor – the only good part – comes from the odd juxtaposition of a cartoon warrior being replaced by an avocado tree. The rest – the bad part – tosses in an easy mockery of his ex-wife. How pathetic-suburban-white-boring to find pleasure in an avocado tree, and to note that as a highlight of one’s life.
This is a pilot, granted; and it’s a pilot that’s kind of all over the place, meaning we don’t know where the show even wants to go. But the avocado tree and other supporting elements – such as doubling up on jokes from her fiancée that he is being “emasculated” by Zorn (thereby making him sound like an odd holdout from the early 90s’ PC battles. Seriously, who even uses that word any longer?) – suggest a worrying desire to use Zorn to mock a specific form of suburban, middle class life. Critiquing suburban, middle class life in and of itself is fine, if done better already by The Simpsons, Mad Men, and many other shows of the last two decades. But central to most of those other shows was a careful eye to the housewife being trapped in this world; here, by contrast, the world’s lifeless, boring, categorically unsexy, or (in the show’s own preferred term) “emasculated” nature is the housewife’s doing. And the correlate is seen in Zorn’s flunky desk job, where his female boss (who he refuses to acknowledge is female, since she’s his superior) admires his passion, and hopes to tap into it better. So, yeah, Zorn is stupid and rude and violent. He’ll break things, whether conference room tables or societal expectations. But he’s here to shake things up with said rudeness, to make the bland worlds of feminized suburbia and pen-pushing office life interesting, better, exciting.
Personally, I’m tired out by shows with rude men who break things, treat people like crap, need emotional maintenance or outright reconstruction from the women that surround them, and all for just a few cheap, lazy jokes. Even if that’s the schtick, and even if he’s literally two-dimensional. It’s been done too many times before. And better. The US’ love of guys like that is about to give us President Trump, so it’s doing too much damage. I think there’s an ethical imperative to try for something better. Maybe I’m misreading the maelstrom that is this pilot, and maybe it’ll reposition or settle down to be something better, but right now it’s not.
Matt Sienkiewicz, Boston College
Will you permit me a Simpsons reference? The fact that I must resort to one is kind of the point.
Grandpa and Lisa are at the kitchen table, complaining that no one listens to them. Too old, too young. Homer enters and offers one of those perfect Simpsons cocktails, two parts insight, one part obliviousness. “I’m a white male age 18 to 49,” he says, “everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my suggestions are!” Immediately, he pulls out a can of “Nuts and Gum” snack mix (Together at last!), scoops a handful, and chomps with delight.
I, along with the rest of early-stage Gen Y, were Lisas when that episode first aired. Today we are Homers. Son of Zorn is our Nuts and Gum.
Mom never bought me that pack of Blueberry Bubbalicious, so we’ll start with the Gum. Zorn is a literal cartoon character, shirtless, muscled, flowing locked. He is He-man with a light coat of early period Adult Swim irony. He is 1988, brightly colored and immediately evocative of a time predating both my disposable income and my problems. He is the promise, impossible, that I can keep the former and exorcise the latter.
Everything else is the Nuts. Sure, some protein, but still not that great for you. Zorn, missing his wife (Cheryl Hines), moves back to real life Orange County, Roger Rabbit style. It’s the land of cringe comedy that made me feel all grown up back in the early oughts. Curb, The Office(s), Parks and Rec. Divorce jokes, bad advice, awkward stares. I half-expected my DVR to make those little TiVo bloop-bloop-blooop sounds when I fast forwarded. I kept waiting for an ad for a Razr flip phone that, like the Bubbalicious, would remain forever out of reach.
In other words, I have never felt so white male age 18-49.
Oh, is it any good? Nuts and gum, my friends, nuts and gum.
Atlanta F/X (9/5)
Available on fx.com
Al Martin, University of Colorado-Denver
FX’s new series Atlanta, starring Donald Glover is a strange show. It feels like it wants to be equal parts Empire (Fox, 2015 – ) and Louie (FX, 2010 – ), but it ultimately fails to capture the prior’s engaging (albeit often sloppy) narrative or the latter’s sharpness and wit. Ostensibly, the series concerns two cousins navigating the Atlanta rap scene in order to achieve financial success. However, throughout the series’ first two episodes, it felt as if I was watching a series of vignettes that only loosely fit together into something resembling narrative. The series’ single-camera shooting style, its placement of blackness on a network that is not Vh1, OWN or BET, the “difficult” way it attempts to unfold its story, and the absence of the laugh track, and its use of language (including the uncensored use of the word “nigger”), I think audiences are supposed to believe the series represents “quality TV” (whatever that means). However, what I was left with after watching the first two episodes is a sense that even as the series features beautiful camera work, and the performances are good, that Atlanta is ultimately all style and very little substance. The single interesting scene occurs near the end of the second episode wherein Glover’s Earnest Marks has been arrested and is seated between a man and his ex-girlfriend (who is presumably a “pre-op” trans woman) as they reminisce about the good times they once shared. As the other arrested men suggest that not only is the man’s ex-girlfriend a man, but that he is homosexual by extension of his relationship with her, Marks intones that sexuality is fluid. While this moment raised the ire of some people online for its anti-trans rhetoric, rooted in an aggressively mediated version of black masculinity, I found it a refreshing (brief) discussion of the porous nature of sex and sexuality (and by extension gender). As black production re-emerges to have its day in the televisual sun (as it did in the 1990s), the danger of an ultimately lackluster series like Atlanta is that it has the ability to bamboozle black viewers who are undoubtedly hungry for representations and productions that do not hew close to the “negative” representations they imagine themselves to see on Vh1, BET and OWN (excepting Queen Sugar). When the repressive positive/negative binary is allowed to shape representation closely tethered to network brands, Atlanta has the ability to look extraordinary, when it’s far from that.